Mules in Appalachia

Published on March 21, 2015
Written by Ray Access

From mines to “Mule Day”

Mules are domesticated hybrid animals, the product of a male donkey and a female horse. Used as pack animals and draft animals, mules are infertile but strong. They are more durable and require less food than a similarly sized horse or donkey. In some respects, a mule is the superior animal for working.

As a result, people have bred mules for millennia. Mules were the favored pack animals of the ancient Egyptians, and Christopher Columbus brought the first donkeys to the New World to breed mules.

A mule-pulled wagon train could cover 30 miles a day, compared to five miles for a horse-drawn or ox-drawn wagon. By 1840, Kentucky was one of the leading mule-breeding states. Americans used mules to build “roads, railways, telegraph and telephone lines… dams and canals,” according to the American Mule Museum. Mules worked in the fields, in mines and in the mountains.

Mules of Yesteryear

Mules were indispensable to the early mountain settlers. Mules helped people clear land, haul loads and plow fields. On Sundays, the family mule pulled the carriage to church. Mules worked seven days a week and rarely complained. Since families relied to heavily on their mules, they took good care of them.

Company-owned mules, on the other hand, didn’t have it as good. In the mines, for example, mules often worked 12-hour days for vicious mule-drivers. Norman Schwarzkopf sums up a mule-driver’s attitude: “Sometimes you have to hit the mule between the eyes with a two-by-four to get its attention.” That’s probably why mules developed a reputation for being stubborn and ornery.

Mules of Today

While machinery has replaced most of the working mules, there are still jobs that only a mule can do, believe it or not. In the Appalachian Mountains, packing trips featuring mules carry tourists and adventurers into and out of the wild backcountry. Out west, mules still carry people on narrow trails down into the Grand Canyon.

Mules aren’t treated as poorly as they once were. Still, their reputation often precedes them. According to Robert Mischka, author of Draft Horses Today (Heart Prairie Press, 1992), “They are remarkable animals with an undeserved bad reputation. Those who take the time to become friends with mules really like them.”

Mules in Appalachian Culture

Mules so ingratiated themselves into the Southern Appalachian culture for so many years that locals often talk of mules to illustrate a point. Here are some metaphors:

  • “You got to have smelt a lot of mule manure before you can sing like a hillbilly.” — Hank Williams
  • “A mule can’t pull while kicking, and a mule can’t kick while pulling.” — Mississippi Rep. Greg Holloway
  • “You don’t learn anything the second time you’re kicked by a mule.” — unknown
  • “Cutting off a mule’s ears doesn’t make it a horse.” — unknown

Colloquialisms have arisen that flavor the local language and pay homage to mules at the same time. Besides the common “stubborn as a mule,” here are a few dandies:

  • “Noisier than a mule in a tin barn”
  • “Mad as a mule chewing bumblebees”
  • “Crazier than a shaved mule in a sled race”

And finally, a small town –– Columbia, Tennessee (aka the “Mule Capital” of the world) –– honors mules once a year with its “Mule Day” events. Started back in 1840, the town attracts some 200,000 visitors to witness competitions, shows, markets and more. This year’s event takes place from April 6–12. Check their website for more information.

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